Fern Folklore (and More)

Jul 20, 2017
The Draping of the Fern

A beautiful fern in the fern garden at Como Park in Minneapolis.

Jasanna Czellar


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I love ferns, fiddleheads, and fauna. Did you know that ferns have a prominent place in folklore?  

Ferns are an ancient family of plants—which first show up in fossil records from a time over 100 million years BEFORE dinosaurs walked the Earth. In fact, ferns grew before flowering plants existed.

Long ago, people couldn’t explain how ferns reproduced since they lack flowers or seeds. (Today we know that ferns reproduce from spores.)

It was this mystery of the non-flowering fern that led to folklore about mystical flowers as seeds.

Here is some of the folklore that I have have found—and thought that you would enjoy …

Fern Folklore

  • During the Middle Ages, ferns were thought to flower and produce seed only once a year—at midnight on St. John’s Eve(June 23), also called Midsummer Eve. Since the seeds couldn’t be seen, they were believed to be invisible. Many attempts were made to collect them because they allowed people to become invisible, see into the future, and have eternal youth.
  • It was also believed that ferns DID flower—but only until the birth of Christ. When all the flowers bloomed in His honor and the fern did not, it was condemned to remain flowerless forever.
  • Ferns also played a role in medicine, including uses as a remedy for rheumatism, toothaches, baldness, and nightmares.
  • According to the symbolic meanings of plants, the fern stands for “sincerity.” Click to see the meaning of your favorite flower or plant.


Photo: “Glowing Fern” by Almanac reader Karin Shipman

Starting in June, my woods and lowlands in New Hampshire would fill with ferns.  (Ferns require liquid water to reproduce, which is why you’ll often find them near streams and moist, forested areas.) They sprout from wet soil in late April and the young fiddleheads appear bright green against the decaying leaves.


Have you ever eaten fiddleheads? So-called because it looks like the tuning end of a fiddle, the fiddlehead the very top of the young ostrich fern, still tightly furled and sheathed in a covering that can be a challenge to remove. (Be aware that it’s only the ostrich variety that is edible. In addition, they must be picked before unfurling; the leaves that follow this growth phase are poisonous.) Many people in this area boil the young plant for an asparagus-like treat. 

Photo: “Ostrich Fern/ Fiddleheads” by Almanac reader Diane Peck

Growing Ferns

If your yard has indirect sunlight and moist soil, consider growing ferns. They are one of the more deer-resistant plants, too. This page includes a list of native ferns in North America.

Many ferns are also grown as houseplants. Here are a couple popular ferns with some growing tips:

Boston ferns grow well with temperatures that are 68 to 75 degrees F during the day and 50 to 69 degrees F at night. They require humidity between 50 and 80 percent, and they do not like drafts. Boston ferns stop growing from fall to winter and during this dormant stage like the temperature to be 50 degrees, minimal watering (the soil should be barely moist), and no fertilizer. During the winter, mist the leaves twice a day. The fern’s root system can occupy up to three quarters of the solid space in the pot without harm, and this plant does not like to be repotted.

Staghorn ferns are often presented as gifts. They can not be planted in ordinary potting soil, so that’s the first thing to check. They should be placed on a piece of bark or (unreated) wood board. Place a few handfuls of damp sphagnum moss or orchid mix on the board and place the fern on top so that the flat round basal fronds are touching the board. Firmly secure the fern to the board with twine, a thin wire, or fishing line. (The fern will attach itself to the wood eventually.) To water staghorn fern, soak the entire arrangement in a bucket or sink. Keep the fern in the shade and water daily until it takes hold of the wood. Feed every two weeks year-round with a balanced liquid fertilizer diluted by half.

Do you have ferns in your area or do you grow ferns? Please share your thoughts on ferns—and folklore!

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Your Old Farmer's Almanac editors occasionally share our reflections, advice, and musings—and welcome your comments. too.

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I I've in Scotland and ferns grow all over the place two appeared in my garden 8 years ago and now they are huge. As you can imagine the weather here is not to hot rarely as hot as seventy and often into minis numbers .I have very clay soil and sometime snow bit the ferns continues to thrive.

I have a 'descendent' of my

I have a 'descendent' of my grandmothers Boston ferns. She divided hers up a year before my wedding (in 1981) so there were ferns across the front of our church. I took a couple of these ferns with me and have been dividing, repotting, and giving them away ever since. In 2013 my daughter was married and there were ferns decorating her service as well. I didn't have as much time for them to be large and full but she now has one in her home all these years later.

You say Boston ferns don't like to be repotted but when mine get too big for their pot I cut the rootball into smaller chunks with a serrated knife like Grandma showed me, repot in new containers and so far they have always thrived. Every summer I put them out under a tree just like my Grandmother always did. Maybe they thrive because my Grandmothers' spirit is keeping an eye on them. :)

I too like ferns and other

I too like ferns and other Pteridophytes!! If anyone can tell me step by step how to grow fern in my home garden, it would be a great help to me.

Catherine, you have been a

Catherine, you have been a most proficient and educational addition to the staff of OFA. Thank you for your hard work in research and communication and for your most informative and readable articles. God bless and keep up the good work.

Great article on ferns.

Great article on ferns. Interesting to learn their place in ancient folk-lore. Thanks for the information!

Thank you, Michael. Glad you

Thank you, Michael. Glad you enjoyed! We discovered this folklore while camping with family in Indiana. It rained and we spent time studying ferns in the nature center. Learning often comes from the unexpected incident!

I was gifted with a fern

I was gifted with a fern several years ago ,I planted it and it seemed to be doing well. the next spring nothing appeared so i assumed it had died . Two years later it sprang up as a welcome surprise . it has flourished ever since

The fern photos are

The fern photos are beautiful! I'm afraid my fern experience has been limited to buying hanging ferns from the local nursery. But they are wonderfully lush and last the whole season!

For fertilizer for my

For fertilizer for my staghorn ferns was giving the a banana about once every 2 weeks...skin and all

It must like the potassium! I

It must like the potassium! I came across these wonderful photos of staghorns. I'm not necessarily a big "Martha" fan but thought you'd really enjoy the information and photos:

Fresh, sauteed fiddleheads

Fresh, sauteed fiddleheads are a wonderful spring treat- always special when you find them in the farmer's market.

TJ (like the name you chose),

TJ (like the name you chose), I picked up some fiddleheads from the market last year and served them as a side to some salmon and eggs. Wonderful! It does involve a bit of work to cook them properly, but it was fun to try.  The taste was in between asparagus, broccoli, and spinach. 

Well said “Go fishing when

Well said “Go fishing when the breeze is from the west, rather than from the north or the east. An optimal time is one hour before or after high or low tide or during”


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